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How Juries Decide Between Murder and Vehicular Manslaughter?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding | May 03, 2023

Many people who end up killing another on the road get charged with California Penal Code 187 PC murder instead of Penal Code 192(c) PC vehicular manslaughter.

They try to figure out why there's a murder charge versus a vehicular manslaughter charge and what can be done about it.  I've seen this situation many times, and I can give you an idea of where the dividing line is.

Still, it is a gray line, and the problem that people don't realize is, depending on what facts are proven, that will usually dictate whether the case is a murder case or a vehicular manslaughter case. Many times, the crucial facts that make that determination are in dispute.

Penal Code 187 PC Murder – Explained

Murder is defined under Penal Code 187 PC as killing another human being "with malice aforethought.” Still, other circumstances determine whether someone is charged with first-degree or second-degree murder.

California recognizes two degrees of murder: first-degree and second-degree. Any killings that fall below the threshold of "malice aforethought" are classified as voluntary, involuntary, or vehicular manslaughter, defined under Penal Code 192 PC, rather than a lesser degree of murder.

To charge somebody with PC 187 murder, prosecutors must prove the following:

  • You killed somebody with malice or forethought, which means you thought about it and planned it.
  • Second-degree murder is a willful act, but it is not deliberate, and there was no premeditation.

Penal Code 192(c) PC Vehicular Manslaughter - Explained

Under California Penal Code 192(c) PC, vehicular manslaughter charges could be filed when somebody drives negligently or unlawfully and then causes the death of another person.

Penal Code 192(c) PC Vehicular Manslaughter

Simply put, if somebody dies in a car accident, you could face vehicular manslaughter charges if you were driving negligently or doing something illegal. Of course, the penalties will always depend on the level of negligence, such as ordinary or gross, and whether you were driving under the influence.

If you cause a death while driving “in the commission of an unlawful act,” that isn't a felony, and with gross negligence, it's considered vehicular manslaughter. California courts generally describe gross negligence as the following:

  • Great negligence,
  • An extreme departure from ordinary conduct, and
  • Failure to exercise the care that even a careless person would use.

I'll give you an idea. Usually, if somebody drinks alcohol, drives, and kills somebody, they would think, how could you possibly be charged with murder?

I didn't intentionally try to kill the person.  I would never kill anybody.  I was just too drunk, so that's why the accident occurred. 

Driving Under the Influence

The legislature and the district attorney's office have decided that in those cases where somebody is so neglectful and realize they might kill somebody when they drink and drive; they won't let them get away with that.  So, what they're going to do is apply the malice that's necessary for murder.

Driving Under the Influence

In other words, to get somebody for murder, you must show you intended to kill the person. So, therefore, they had malice in their heart against that person. 

But in a DUI scenario, the malice will be inferred because you knew, or reasonably should have known, that drinking and driving are dangerous to human life. 

They used to have a rule where you had to have gotten a prior DUI and been warned and know from the classes that it's dangerous to drink and drive, but now, the powers that believe that everybody knows that it's dangerous to drink and drive because it's so prevalent in our society.

So, if you drink and drive and you kill somebody, you will be charged with murder, and they will have a pretty good argument that you should be convicted of that murder, which gives you one example.

Driving in an Extreme Reckless Manner

Another example I've seen is that someone wasn't even drinking any alcohol or using any drugs, but they were driving around like a maniac, such as:

  • In a wanton, reckless manner;
  • Running red lights,
  • Going over 100 miles an hour.

In that scenario, they'll also attempt to infer or imply the malice necessary to get the person for a murder charge. Usually, the classic vehicular manslaughter scenario comes up where someone is driving recklessly on the road, and death occurs.

To get past that threshold for murder, someone's got to do something crazy.  So, when it's vehicular manslaughter, they're talking about grossly negligent behavior. In other words, something more than mere negligence, like if you run a stop sign or go too fast. 

That's usually not going to rise the case up to vehicular manslaughter. But, still, if you start driving crazy, going fast, like over 100 miles an hour, you begin to get into the range where if somebody dies because of your actions, you'll be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

There's not much of a dividing line, a delineated dividing line between murder and vehicular manslaughter, so that you might get charged with murder in some of these scenarios.

Retain an Experienced Defense Lawyer

The bottom line is that you need a great attorney by your side because there are jury instructions on this that give the law for murder and that give the law for vehicular manslaughter.

So, if the case is going to go to trial, you want a skilled advocate ready to argue that this is not a murder case; it's a vehicular manslaughter case.

They will have to use those jury instructions and the facts that come out at a jury trial to convince the jury that this is a vehicular manslaughter case versus a murder case.

Let me put my 30 years of experience to work for you if you need the best.  I've worked for the district attorney's office, I've worked for a superior court judge, and since the early 1990s, I've been defending people just like you. So pick up the phone now.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.

About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding

What Makes Ronald Hedding Uniquely Qualified To Represent You? I've been practicing criminal defense for almost 30 years and have handled thousands of cases, including all types of state and federal sex crime cases. All consultations are discreet and confidential.